The Right To Choose: A Lesson From The Maccabees

Rabbi Michael LevyBy: Rabbi Michael Levy

When Alexander the Great conquered Jerusalem in 332 BCE, he permitted the Jews to continue traditional worship and rituals in the Holy Temple. The Jews honored him by naming some of their children “Alexander.”  (It would please Alexander that a legendary Jewish baseball pitcher bears a derivative of his name: Sandy.)

Some of Alexander’s successors were despotic rulers. Nevertheless, as long as they granted Jews the right to freely practice their religion, the Jews tolerated them. But Antiochus Epiphanes, believing that he could strengthen his kingdom by instituting pagan worship in the Temple and throughout Israel, banned traditional Jewish worship and rituals.  His “no choice” edicts sparked the Maccabees’ successful rebellion, commemorated on Chanukah.

After the Maccabees’ victory, their leader Simon decreed that the non-Jewish Idumeans either convert to Judaism or leave Israel. His bickering successors also forgot about choice, concentrating instead on accumulating wealth and power. One faction allied itself with Rome, hastening the demise of the Maccabean dynasty

The Chanukah liturgy scarcely mentions individual Maccabees, perhaps because their descendants failed to preserve freedom. Chanukah prayers focus instead on God championing Israel’s cause, enabling the faithful to purify and rededicate the Temple.

Choices for People with Disabilities

The Maccabees’ rise and downfall teach us that those who achieve freedom must ensure that citizens retain the right to make meaningful choices. Now that we with disabilities are gaining freedom to participate fully in society, it’s crucial that we, to the greatest extent possible, choose our own paths to inclusion.

Courtesy of Sandee Brawarski, NY Jewish Week

Courtesy of Sandee Brawarski, NY Jewish Week

There are still professionals, parents and people with disabilities who say “let the experts make the decisions.” Sometimes, people “labeled” with a particular condition or disorder are steered towards others who share that label. While input from educators and doctors is invaluable, a person is much more than the sum of his test results and diagnoses.

Decision-making should start early. The developmentally delayed child who never chooses the red dress or the green dress may later struggle to decide when it’s safe to cross the street.

Disability-related decisions should be based on accurate information, knowledge of “best practices” in synagogues and communities, awareness of financial and technology resources, input from experienced people with disabilities and the principle that the person, not the disability, is primary.

Choices on the Path to Inclusion

Some of us, conscious of the stigma still associated with disability, choose to hide what makes us different.

Others prefer the label “special needs individuals.” “Special” can be misinterpreted to mean that those in this category aren’t expected to follow rules and assume responsibilities like their “non-special” counterparts.

Still others, myself among them, believe that disability itself doesn’t prevent full participation in society. Rather, attitudinal, architectural, communications and transportation barriers keep us from integrating fully into our communities.  We must work together to eliminate or minimize those barriers.

May God crown our victories with the wisdom to maximize the choices of those for whom we advocate.

A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah- and disability-related topics.

As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah — the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons –boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” He also  writes a weekly “disability blog.”

Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him at

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Filed under Disabilities rights

2 responses to “The Right To Choose: A Lesson From The Maccabees

  1. Dear Rabbi Michael Levy,
    I appreciate this article. I find that choice is a valuable possession. Often we give this possession up without a thought to its worth and we pay for that mistake years and years into our futures. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Beautiful. I think this is a wonderful lesson to draw from Hannukah.

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